Almost 20 people responded to Travis Guida's call for community input toward the Park Rapids Area High School (PRAHS) community career collaboration coordinator program (4C).

The result was the first-ever meeting of the 4C advisory board Jan. 23 at Knute Nelson Crystal Brook.

Noting that some of those he invited were unable to attend the meeting, Guida said, "That was part of the reason I had for welcoming as many people as possible. If you have five people and one or two can't come, that limits you. If you have 20 or 22 and a few people can't come, you can still get a lot of stuff done."

Kristen Partlow, who works for CHI St. Joseph's Community Health and is also the employment representative for the FATHER Project, commented on the diversity of backgrounds represented in the group.

"I go to so many different meetings and see so many of the same people," she said. "It's so nice to be in a room with a lot of people that I don't know. This is truly an example of us coming together, and more different people doing so."

Chairing the meeting was Sandy Espe, an intern at A Better Connection in Park Rapids who taught high school business and English for more than 30 years in the Grand Forks Public Schools.

Espe and Guida had the group break up into small groups and brainstorm about four questions relating to the local business community's role in connecting PRAHS students with career opportunities.

Question 1, for example, was "As it relates to future success, what is the greatest challenge(s) facing students?"

Among the answers were a lack of self-motivation and work ethic, a need for better role models at home, opportunities to earn money and high school credit for job shadowing and apprenticeship, screen addiction, the limited range of experiences from growing up in a remote small town, a negative mindset toward kids in the community, the fluidity of career fields and rapid pace of change, fear of graduation, lack of "soft skills" like dressing appropriately for a job interview, childhood trauma, poverty, difficult home life, and a lack of desire among young people to identify with their career.

The other questions considered what community-school partnerships are working well, what challenges arise from these opportunities and tangible solutions.

After each group presented its answers to the four questions, participants were encouraged to draw stars next to the ideas that they felt should be explored further.

"It's not like Trav is saying, 'This is what our group is going to do,'" Espe explained. "This is truly group-led. Everybody gets a chance to have a say and bring forth their opinion."

Jeff Johnson, principal at PRAHS, explained some of the school's programs, including College in the High School and Panther Tracks.

"Kids can earn up to 35 credits right now, college credits in high school," said Johnson. "Our goal, in three years, would be that a student can earn an A.A. degree before they leave high school. There may have to be a few things online."

Johnson noted that this program may not apply to every student's career goals, but he hopes it will encourage local kids to choose staying in high school over taking the Post-Secondary Enrollment Option.

Guida also urged participants to sign up for committees focusing on specific areas within the business community, such as hospitality, manufacturing and agriculture.

"I know that the position that I am in has existed in the past," he said. "But I think, hopefully, that a community-driven board will direct the tasks that I do. I am looking forward to tackling some of these things, organizing and synthesizing the information we got here, to move forward."

Several of the meeting's participants commented about interested in them in helping steer the 4C program.

"I want to see better communication between the school and community," said Jay Pike, a financial advisor with Edward Jones who also serves on the school board. "I want the kids to see the opportunities that are within Park Rapids."

Dustin Lof said he was interested in finding qualified help for his automotive repair business.

Ben Tande, who owns Timber Creek Dock and Lift Service at Dorset Corner, said he thinks there is a communication gap between kids and adults, including business owners, that needs to be better understood. "We're expecting things, going both directions in those groups, that are not the reality of what happens," he said.

Nikki Torkelson, a PRAHS graduate who came back after college to work with Itasca-Mantrap, said, "I want to show other kids that this is a great place to live and raise a family, if they graduate and want to come back. And also, for Itasca-Mantrap, I want to show that we have a wide variety of opportunities for students. You can get a job with a two-year degree, a four-year degree or no degree."

Al Withers retired to the Park Rapids area three years ago after a 31-year career with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

"My desire," he said, "is for this group to work on career and technical education in the areas of food and agriculture, and ultimately to build an ag center and an outdoor learning center that incorporates that, where food agriculture and natural resources interface with the curriculum and with kids."

During his time at MDA, Withers ran a program called Agriculture in the Classroom, which he explained was about "embedding agriculture, food and natural resources in the K-12 core curriculum across the state. You start by tilling the land, but then there are so many jobs and career opportunities that get that food to your plate. I don't think people understand the opportunities there."

Jennifer Bateman with Two Inlets Resort said it is important to find people willing and able to own and run a resort.

"I am truly passionate about the resort industry, in Park Rapids but also statewide," she said. "Tourism is huge to Park Rapids. Resorts play a big part of that."

Partlow held forth about initiatives at the school and in the community to create a more trauma-informed environment.

"It's become clear to us that one of our biggest issues, or the root of problems in our community, has to do with adverse childhood experiences," she said. "And so, we are working to address that."

Partlow added that the FATHER Project also has a stake in getting dads involved in careers.

"All the different jobs that I've ever had in my life have brought me to this spot," said Guida. "You can say the same for yourselves, all the different experiences that you've had."

Those experiences won't exist for today's kids if community members don't provide them, he said.

Johnson agreed that it is important to open up mentoring and internship programs with local business owners that may lead his students to consider a possible career path.

"There are so many careers out there that the kids can get exposed to and have good experiences that will help lead them in a direction," he said.

Guida said one of his goals for the 4C program is to plan a career fair for sometime in the late fall.

"We're thinking it's a quarterly group," he said. "We'll look at setting up another meeting in four to six weeks."

In his closing comments, Guida told the board about a recent conference where he told staff from other schools about the 4C position, which was funded last fall by the Leadership Council of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission.

"The other schools were like, 'You have that in your community? That's already been supported?' We had that going already this fall, and then I put this invitation out through the Chamber, and now look! There are 20-some people now who are part of it. That's exciting. There's a lot of positive energy moving forward."